The news of April 18, 1775, dashed any hope of peacefully settling differences between Great Britain and the American colonies. Maj. John Pitcairn of the British Army had fired upon the American militia assembled in Lexington, Massachusetts. Americans from towns and villages in every direction lay among the dead and wounded.
Word quickly spread. The almost-hourly appearance of armed men from far and near soon resulted in a ragtag but determined army gathered around Boston.
The new Congress quickly moved to adopt the army, calling it the Continental Army. It was essential that the troops be given a leader—a commander in chief—for the inexperienced, newly formed Continental Army of the 13 colonies.
Opinions varied on whom to choose. Several were ambitious for the post. Massachusetts representative John Adams rose to nominate George Washington, a colonel of the Virginia forces. Citing Washington's talents and unquestioned character, Adams made the motion to appoint him commander in chief of the armed forces of the American colonies.
Support for his appointment was unanimous. Washington accepted, refusing compensation other than the reimbursement of his expenses. He asked "every gentleman in the room," however, to remember his declaration that he did not believe himself equal to the command and that he accepted it only as a duty made imperative by the unanimity of the vote.
To the day of his death, as evidenced by letters to family members, he was the greatest skeptic of his fitness for his military and leadership duties.
Forging a Leader
Little hint of greatness was to be found in the early years of this wealthy landowner, whose time was largely occupied with his large holdings. Washington was slow to endorse independence from the mother country, doing so only when it seemed no other course could work. In a letter to a neighbor, he tended toward peaceful resistance yet faced the reality that force might ultimately prove necessary. He was present when Patrick Henry delivered his powerful speech against the Stamp Act.
Earlier Washington had fought alongside the British in the French and Indian War, distinguishing himself as a courageous leader with little concern for his own safety and comfort. He was appointed commander of the Virginia forces when only 23.
In the early years he learned lessons that would serve him well. He knew the training of the English soldiers was best adapted to the battlefields of Europe and not the woods of North America. He comprehended the value of camouflage and of avoiding meeting the enemy in face-to-face battle lines too often. He was convinced early in his career he could defeat the British army.
Washington faced serious difficulties in surviving his first year. He labored to collect arms and ammunition and bring discipline to a collection of merchants, farmers and hunters, many of whom were suspicious of a standing army. Colonial poverty, lack of material support and short-term enlistments left him with an inadequately equipped fighting force.
Criticism, Cold and Conflict
Washington's tactics of not seeking face-to-face battles with the British fell under constant criticism. His difficulties could have broken the spirit of most leaders. The fiber of the character of Washington and his men was tested over and over as an impotent and meddling Congress failed to provide the needs of the ragged troops.
Washington painfully witnessed the misery of his men sleeping on the frozen, snow-covered ground. Many had no shoes or blankets and little food as they wintered at Valley Forge and again at Trenton, New Jersey. On one occasion, he pledged his private fortune to help provide pay to the soldiers. His leadership and personal example during these distressing times kept many of them from giving up.
"These are the times that try men's souls," wrote Thomas Paine in 1776. But the next few years were even worse for Washington. Adding to his burdens, some of his officers were involved behind his back in a plot to replace him with one of their own as commander in chief, Gen. Horatio Gates.
Washington's surprise crossing of the ice-filled Delaware River on a stormy night, marching in the teeth of slashing sleet and snow to attack the Hessians in Trenton, is the stuff of legend. This victory injected new life and hope into the flagging morale of the ill-equipped Continental Army.
His courage in battle frequently led him to expose himself recklessly to enemy fire. To the dismay of other officers, he often rode back and forth in the thick of battle rallying his troops. The enemy shot horses out from under him more than once, yet he finished the war as one of a few uninjured officers.
A fellow officer wrote: "Our army love their General very much, but they have one thing against him which is the little care he takes of himself in any action. His personal bravery and the desire he has of animating his troops by example, make him fearless of danger. This occasions much uneasiness."
Washington's extraordinary escape in one battle led a Colonial preacher to declare in a sermon his belief that Washington had been preserved to be the "savior of his country."
At one point the Colonial army numbered no more that 3,500 because of desertions and short enlistments. Some historians say the largest number of soldiers Gen. Washington ever had under his command was 18,000 to 20,000. He faced a force of 30,000 well-supplied, seasoned, disciplined soldiers. Yet in the end he cornered Gen. Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Encircled, with his back to the sea and Washington's army facing him on land, Cornwallis sought terms of peace. On Oct. 19, 1781, the proud and once-powerful British units paraded between files of French and American soldiers to lay down their arms in surrender.
A mortal blow had been struck. The British, after arduous negotiations, were generous for the most part and recognized the independence of their former colonies. With a few notable exceptions, the two countries have been close allies since.
Commander to King?
In December 1783 Washington retired to his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia. In spite of the limited newspaper reporting of the time, Washington had become a national hero. Had he wished, he could have stepped into the role of a monarch over this newly formed country. His army, unhappy with its treatment and remuneration at the end of the war, was ready to make him king. Washington quickly and indignantly put a stop to any such plans.
"In plain terms he stated his abhorrence of the proposal; he was at a loss to conceive what part of his conduct could have encouraged such thinking; they could not have 'found a person to whom their schemes were more disagreeable'; and he charged them 'if you have any regard for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your mind, and never communicate as from yourself or nay one else, a sentiment of the like nature'" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, Vol. 28, p. 346).
The Federal Convention met at Philadelphia in May 1787 to frame the United States Constitution. Washington was present as a delegate from Virginia. As soon as enough states had ratified the document to assure the success of the new government, the unanimous vote of the electors made Washington the first president of the United States of America.
As with most leaders before and since, Washington soon suffered virulent attacks from journalists, politicians and fellow statesmen. It was reported that in a cabinet meeting in 1793 he said that "he would rather be in his grave than in his present situation."
Lessons for Leaders
Washington proved himself to be a good soldier: loyal and resolute in difficult as well as good times. The Bible describes true Christians as soldiers in the army of Jesus Christ.
"You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ," wrote the apostle Paul. "No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier" (2 Timothy 2:3-4).
A Christian commits his life in totality to the captain of his salvation, Jesus Christ. A soldier's lot is to endure hardships; he is called to do battle.
Early Christians faced tremendous struggles. In a time of hardship and persecution that would soon lead to his death, Paul reminded Timothy of his calling:
"Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.
"Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling ...
"For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day. Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit [which] dwells in us" (2 Timothy 1:6-14).
The patriarch Job asks a crucial question: Will we accept good things from God but get discouraged and want to quit when hard times come upon us? (Job 2:10).
The battles a Christian must face are not physical, but spiritual (Ephesians 6:12). The enemy, Satan the devil, is powerful. The war will be long and difficult, but our captain assures that in the end we will be victorious. We will gain independence from the powers of unrighteousness.